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Cannes 2010: Diego Luna is willing and Abel

May 19, 2010 |  2:18 pm

Diegoluna

Six years ago, Diego Luna, the 31-year old Mexican actor, went to see a production of "Hamlet" with his father in London. The brooding prince of Denmark was played by a young man with "this baby face," and afterward at dinner, Luna and his father,  Alejandro, one of the leading set designers in Mexico, began kicking around an idea: Why not re-imagine "Hamlet" as a 10-year-old boy?

"The next morning in the hangover, it sounded like a stupid idea," Luna said.  "But it stayed in my mind for years."

This week, Luna, best known in the United States for his roles in "Y Tu Mama Tambien," Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" and as Harvey Milk's swishy and histrionic lover in 2008's "Milk," is in Cannes with his assured and moving feature film directorial debut, "Abel," playing out of competition.  

Yet Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is more a ghost over the story now, a metaphor shadowing the narrative. What "Abel" is actually about is a 10-year old mute schizophrenic, Abel, who's released from the mental hospital after two years to go home to his struggling single mother and brother and sister. The child copes with the family's stress by suddenly speaking, and donning the role of the father, a fantasy that everyone plays along with -- at least until his long-absent real father unexpectedly returns. 

Of "Hamlet," Luna says with a chuckle. "It's kind of there. It's behind what we wrote."

Parenthood was on his mind when making the movie, explains the bearded actor, with a crinkly endearing smile. Despite being on the Riviera, Luna is distinctly un-slick in a crumpled blue workman's jacket and pants. He slumps back on the settee of one of Croisette's beachside restaurants, literally feet from the ocean. He had his son two years ago as he and screenwriter Augusto Mendoza, were working on the script, and his wife, the actress Camila Sodi, is giving birth to their second child in weeks. 

The film never really explains Abel's illness, but dives into the family dynamics. "The mother does so many mistakes but for the best of intentions. I wish parents at the end would think a little bit about how everything we do affects the lives of our kids and defines who they're going to be," Luna says, adding that at least in Mexico, "Families are just run by the mothers. That's a big issue. You're a good father if you provide. But fathers are not there when [children] choose what music they're going to listen to. You have these parents, these fathers who don't know who their children are.

"The film is actually quite personal. The idea of a kid being an adult before he should. I was six when I started working in theater. I chose to be an adult before I should be," recalls Luna who went on to become a child star in Mexico, appearing in such soaps as "El Abuelo Yo" and "El Premio Mayor." Unlike Abel,  Luna was actually raised by a single father, after his mother was killed in a car accident when he was two. "My father had to play the role of mother and father. In the film, it's the mother. I did change the sex of the parent, so it didn't hurt too much. You have to step back. Otherwise, it's better to go to a shrink and talk to them."

Luna is still clearly close to his father, an spry but elderly gentleman in a natty blazer, who wanders into the restaurant. Luna welcomes him with an effusive hug. Part of the reason he started acting, he says, was simply to be close to his father who worked in theater. "I was dying to act. In a way, I was begging to be next to him. I just wanted to be closer and closer, and to belong to his world," says Luna, who found school boring, but theater "magic. I was the happiest kid ever, but I did choose to live around adults and today now that I have a kid, I don't know if I would let him do it."

Luna's intense empathy for other child actors, clearly informed how he directed "Abel." He was adamant that he wanted non-professional children, and ran an open casting call in Agua Caliente, the small town in Mexico where they shot the film. From 400 kids who came to the audition,  Luna ultimately wound up choosing three who he worked with in an intense theater workshop for six weeks, before ultimately settling on then 10-year-old Christopher Ruiz-Esparza, who fortunately had a little brother who plays his sibling in the film.

"We designed everything around them, " Luna says. "If you're an actor, you cannot work under pressure."  Ruiz-Esparza didn't read the script, and was never told the story. Luna simply explained that his character Abel "was a kid pretending to be someone else. It's like an actor who one day decides to play the role of adult."

For eight weeks, Luna shot the film in chronological order, page by page. Luna refused to allow costume fittings for Ruiz-Esparza so he wouldn't know what was going to happen. "Everyone around him had to behave differently," Luna explains, including the other actors and the crew, so the real world seamlessly matched the world he was asked to portray on screen.

"Everything was about making it a playground for him," recalls Luna, who felt an intense sense of responsibility during his whole childhood as a working actor. "I was happy to be treated as an adult, but that's not the way it should be. If you bring a kid into a place, you're the one who has to adjust. Not the kid. He shouldn't have to adjust to your world. That's crazy."

-- Rachel Abramowitz, reporting from Cannes, France

Photo of Diego Luna by Keith Dannemiller / For The Times


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